April 4, 2005
ALBANY, N.Y. - Researchers and volunteers around the world are taking early steps toward a complex but straightforward technological goal: to use electrical signals from the brain as instructions to computers and other machines, allowing paralyzed people to communicate, move around and control their environment literally without moving a muscle.
Most dramatically, that could help "locked-in" patients - those who've lost all muscle movement because of conditions like Lou Gehrig's disease or brainstem strokes.
Take a look at what other people have accomplished lately with signals from their brains:
- A quadriplegic man in Massachusetts has shown he can change TV channels, turn room lights on and off, open and close a robotic hand and sort through messages in a mock e-mail program.
- Seven paralyzed patients near Stuttgart, Germany, have been surfing the Internet and writing letters to friends from their homes.
- At a lab in Switzerland, two healthy volunteers learned to steer a 2-inch, two-wheeled robot - sort of like a tiny wheelchair - through a dollhouse-sized floor plan.
And at labs in several universities, monkeys operate mechanical arms with just their brains. At the University of Pittsburgh, a monkey can feed itself chunks of zucchini and orange slices this way.
Research into harnessing brain signals goes back some 20 years. But lately it seems the research pot is starting to come to a boil, as advances in brain science, electronics and computer software have combined to push the field forward.
In fact, far more than half the scientific reports ever published in this area have appeared in the last three years alone, says researcher Dr. Jonathan Wolpaw. And while only about a half-dozen labs seriously worked in the field as late as the mid-1990s, now about 60 labs have gotten into it, he said.
"The field, in the last four or five years, has kind of exploded," he said.